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The Next Great Baller

Maxwell Klinger | May 30, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Editor's Note: This is one of many dispatches from Oakland that San Francisco magazine is publishing over the next month, all part of our June "Oakland Issue." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

Ivan Rabb’s day would make a stumping politician sweat: up before dawn, a workout at 7 a.m., breakfast, school from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., study hall until 5:30 p.m., another workout, practice until 7 p.m., then back home for dinner and another few hours of schoolwork. Thing is, he’s only 17. But you don’t become ESPN’s number one high school junior basketballer in the country without hustling. A lot.

When I arrive at Bishop O’Dowd High School, a college prep school off 98th Avenue in the Oakland foothills, Rabb has just finished a session with University of Arizona coach Sean Miller, who has flown to California to meet him. Such encounters are a regular occurrence for Rabb, who for months now has been receiving texts and calls from college recruiters telling him that he’s the greatest thing since the alley-oop. My initial plan is to take him to a Friday-night Warriors game, but he can’t swing it: He has just returned from Chicago and the McDonald’s All-American Game (just watching—it’s for seniors only) and has to catch up on homework. If all this sounds stressful, it is. Rabb must choose from among 351 Division 1 basketball programs—a decision that will have consequences not only for him and his family but also, in a wider sense, for Oakland’s basketball scene, long one of the city’s greatest legacies.

Rabb grew up in East Oakland, “below the hill,” as he says, where he learned the game by shooting baskets into a milk crate with the bottom cut out. The first few times that his high school coach, Lou Richie, tried to drop him off after practice, his block was cordoned off by police. But Rabb describes his neighbors as “strong people, with toughness, good hearts, and intelligence, even if it’s not always put to good use.” His father, a construction worker and ex-marine, and his mother, the proprietor of a Cajun soul kitchen across the street from Bishop O’Dowd (get the blackened catfish), have instilled in him a deep pride about his origins.

Rabb, who says that he was an “untalented” player until middle school, is now an ambidextrous, 6-foot, 10-inch, 230-pound power forward—and still growing. He’s been a standout on the city’s best AAU team, the Oakland Soldiers (LeBron played for them a few summers; Tupac wrote their theme song), since joining the summer ball team in seventh grade. Scouts praise him for his “soft hands,” his “bounce,” and his surgical shot-blocking ability. (To see the full panoply of these skills, check out the YouTube video “Ivan Rabb the #1 Player in Class of 2015!?”) This season at Bishop O’Dowd, he averaged 27 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 deflections (a combo of blocks and steals). And he’s disciplined: Despite those impressive numbers, he’s been in foul trouble just once in three years.

But in Oakland, ability alone promises nothing. For every Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Brian Shaw, or Damian Lillard, there’s a Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell, the playground legend who used to 360-dunk over cars before he went to jail. Rabb, who is as soft-spoken as he is tall, understands how easily talent is defeated in East Oakland and how precarious the road to success can be. “You learn about Hook when you’re just a kid,” he says.

When I ask Rabb if his ultimate goal is making the NBA, getting a college education, or just representing his community, he replies, “All of the above.” For now, though, he has to settle for being the next next best thing. And he’s running late for practice, and he still has to catch up on homework, and then there are all the other distractions (including his 5,200 Twitter followers). As we’re walking down the hallway of his high school, a group of excitable students begin playfully taunting.

“Arizona is here, Ivannnn,” a cute girl with braces says. “Tell them they need to come talk to me...”

Originally published in the June Issue of San Francisco.

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